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Roman Topography 101

Fr. Ambrose

"My house shall be a house of prayer."

Something a little bit different this morning: Let’s have a look at ancient Roman Christian topography. Ancient people buried their dead outside the walls of their cities. That’s a really good idea, so that the people living inside the walls don’t catch fatal diseases from all those decaying corpses. If you were a Christian in the first centuries of the Church, there would have been a few very important places in your life: the houses where you would have gathered in secret for prayer with your fellow Christians, and the tombs of the martyrs outside the city walls, out there along the most important thoroughfares coming in and out of the city. While the Church was still under persecution, you would have snuck out of the city to the places where the martyrs were buried, so that the priest could touch your handkerchief to the martyrs’ tombs, or so that you could assist at a secret little Mass offered in a kind of trophy house over the tomb, or so that you could have prayed and then left some graffiti along the walls there—“Lawrence, pray for my son Maximus” or “Cyprian, intercede for us”—or maybe you might have taken your children and a basket and made a little picnic there to commemorate the day that your friend had been killed in witness to the faith.

Well, when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the fourth century, all of that secrecy was no more, and he wanted to embellish the monuments over the two most important of the Roman martyrs: Ss. Peter and Paul. Our Mass today honors the dedication of those two great ancient basilicas. Both of these monumental churches posed serious construction problems to the emperor and the pope who wanted to erect them. Hence the reason for our look at Roman topography.

First, St. Paul’s basilica: St. Paul was beheaded and then put in a commoner’s grave right beside the Via Ostiensis, the road from Rome to the major port city at the mouth of the Tiber. If our altar here were the tomb of St. Paul, the road would be about where the abbey building is there, and the Tiber River would be about where our dirt road is between the camp fire ring and the sports field—not much space to erect a monumental basilica. Ancient Christians always faced the rising sun while celebrating Holy Mass, and they didn’t much care what side of the altar the people stood on—they could be on the West of the altar-over-the-tomb or on the East of the altar-over-the-tomb—but what was all important was that the altar was over the tomb (and that the priest faced East). St. Paul’s tomb was way too close to the road to admit of a big basilica on that side of the altar, but if Constantine built the basilica on the other side, the Tiber River kind of hemmed it in, and always threatened to flood up into the front doors. He put the church in the only place that he could have, wedged in between the river and the road, and to do that he had to shore up the river bank so that it wouldn’t flood right there where his big, new, expensive church was. Inconvenient, but it worked.

St. Peter’s tomb presented a much more difficult problem. Nero crucified him upside-down in a circus on the other side of the city and on the other side of the Tiber, and he too was dumped in a commoner’s grave along the road that went out that direction. Imagine again that this altar is the tomb, but imagine that it’s at the top of a rather steep hill reaching down back into our abbey courtyard, all the way down to the Tiber River, which this time runs out back there down at the bottom of that long hill. That hill, the Vatican Hill, would then continue up here through the abbey church, up and up, with really no place at all to build a proper monumental basilica. What’s more, there are more tombs all along the road climbing the Vatican Hill, and no way to build anything without demolishing those tombs—one of the worst things a pious ancient Roman could imagine. So what did Constantine do? He let his newfound Christianity triumph over his Roman roots. He cut off the tops of dozens and dozens of new noble tombs, and used what was left for the foundations of his great basilica; then he undertook one of the biggest engineering projects of that epoch, moving thousands of cubic yards of the Vatican Hill above St. Peter’s tomb to the West, and backfilling the hill to the East of the tomb so that there was a platform to build on between the tomb and the Tiber. This was a radical and costly and unheard-of feat.

But what he had after all this work were two of the greatest buildings ever constructed, matching basilicas facing in opposite directions over the tombs of the two greatest apostles and martyrs. Our Lord Jesus took great pains in this morning’s Gospel to remind God’s people that they must keep his temple in Jerusalem holy: "My house shall be a house of prayer." Constantine the Great and the popes whom he supported went to extraordinary lengths and undertook unbelievable costs and risks to build temples for God’s glory over the tombs of the apostles. But none of these buildings comes even close to the supreme value and importance of the temples of God that we offer him in hearts that are pure, in souls that are filled with sanctifying grace and the indwelling Trinity.

So as we strive to honor God with our lives, as we honor the holy apostles Peter and Paul, and as we prepare to receive our Lord from this altar, may we be every bit as radical and zealous in fashioning for him worthy temples, hearts and souls and lives that give him the glory that is his due. Amen.

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